To look at world history philosophically means to reveal it as a rational universal process. This is the basic core of Hegel’s philosophy of history—the Hegelian position on world history. From the vantage of philosophy, the sum of human action becomes comprehended as the very movement of Reason, understood as the externalized form of world spirit. When philosophically grasped, world history exhibits its rational design and ultimate purpose or end (telos). For Hegel, the progress of world history is the story of Sprit’s progressive understanding and unfolding of its freedom. In this sense world history is nothing more than Reason’s self-development. The task of the philosopher-historian, then, is to demonstrate that “Reason rules the world and likewise [rules] world history” (12, citations are from Introduction to the Philosophy of History, trans. Leo Rauch, Hackett, 1988).
But what does it mean to say that Reason rules the world? Hegel speaks of Reason as if it were a kind of sovereign being, whose powers are extended and exercised over a given domain, i.e., a world. The notion of Reason as the sovereign of world history is a recurring motif in Hegel’s philosophy of history. As Derrida would later remark, “reason [in Hegel] is history, and there is no history but of reason” (“Ends of Man,” in Margins of Philosophy, 122). But, in what sense do we understand Reason as a sovereign being, a sovereign force? If the motor of history is Reason’s movement toward Freedom, do we understand this force as a willing or destining? Hegel writes that this force is spiritual activity, which strives toward the actualization of Reason’s essence and inner principle of Freedom, or what is the same thing: the force of Reason is the historical unfolding of Reason’s gradual self-consciousness and self-reflection of itself as that which is free and autonomous.
If Spirit, as Hegel suggests, can be understood in terms of “what it does,” its activity is “to make itself the object of its own consciousness, to apprehend itself as Spirit” (99), we will see that Spirit’s activity has a specific structure in Hegel. My suggestion here is that this structure can be understood in terms of the principle of development, understood by Hegel as a process in which what is potential is made actual. On the level of spiritual activity, development takes the form of Spirit’s unfolding of its inner potentiality (the “in itself”) to explicit actuality (the “for itself”). This means that Reason is not only the force behind history; it is also that which unfolds a world into actuality: world is Reason actualized. We recall Hegel’s thesis in the Philosophy of Right: “What is real is rational and what is rational is real.” Real can be translated as actual here. Indeed, throughout his lectures, the words “activity” and “actualization” recur as key topos in his discourse of the development Reason as Spirit in world history. What is to be noted here is that if Hegel’s philosophy of history proceeds in explicating a principle of development concerning the unfolding of Reason as Spirit, Hegel does so by presenting a certain story, a certain narrative about Reason’s activity in space and time. The subject of this story is Spirit, its plot, Reason crafting a world. Thus, if Reason, as Hegel maintains in the Phenomenology of Spirit, is that which is capable of actualizing itself as purposive activity, then the story of Reason in Hegel’s philosophy of history can be interpreted as a story about Reason’s capacity, activity, and struggle of crafting a world for itself, of Spirit finding home in and for itself.
What follows is a brief reflection on how Hegel narrates the story of Reason’s activity of crafting a world, which we can identify as a specific narrative of development. By focusing on the manner in which Hegel tells his story of Spirit’s development, we will see that the way in which Hegel frames the story determines the field of historical representability – i.e., who or what counts as historical and what qualifies as world-historical in Hegel’s philosophical system. Hegel’s narrative, then, possesses within it a certain normativity with respect to a conception of historical agency. Indeed, we are asking here, What kind of historical subject is implied? What historical agent is possible and impossible in Hegel’s prose of world history? Of course, the most concrete example of the normative aspect of Hegel’s narrative can be found in his notion of the State as the objectification and end-realization of the Idea of Spirit, which entails that there are some civilizations who are considered genuine states, and some who are not: India, for example, is for Hegel not a genuine state because it has not fully realized its potential of freedom; it is underdeveloped with respect to the course of World Spirit. This example of exclusion from world-history proper is also what allows for a certain coherence, a certain systematicity to Hegel’s philosophy of history. For if to look at world history philosophically means to apprehend history as the total development and progress of Reason, then philosophy not only enables and effects a narrative coherence but also defines a normative criteria against which to measure history’s meaning and purposiveness.
Philosophical reflection thus effects a certain coherence, a certain intelligibility. Hegel’s is an ontological argument about Reason’s substance, activity, and being in the world. Yet, in making world history intelligible as a cohesive, developmental story of Reason, something seems to always fall away in Hegel’s philosophical narrative. Something is left behind, refused even, in giving conceptual unity and shape to Spirit, as we saw with Hegel’s judgment of India. For Hegel, “bare desire, volition in its crude and savage form” also “falls outside the theater and sphere of world history” (31). Happiness appears to have no place in Hegel’s world history: “periods of happiness,” he says, “are empty pages in history, for they are periods of harmony, times when the antithesis is missing” (29). And because in any given epoch, World Spirit becomes invested or exemplified only in one State, there are those who are either left behind its course or simply annihilated by its activity: the histories of slavery and colonization of the New World are explained in these terms. To understand why things like “bare desire,” “happiness,” racialized bodies and non-Western spaces become occluded and displaced in Hegel’s prose of world history, I want to identify in Hegel’s conceptualization of development moments in which something is at once paradoxically considered necessary but superfluous: i.e., a moment in the process of development when something is left behind, necessarily refused, in order for actualization to succeed.
First, we should understand precisely how Hegel understands the principle of development. To “develop” means to bring into actuality what is potential over space and time. The principle of development, Hegel notes, enables a being to produce and reproduce itself, by making “itself actually what it already was potentially.” Already, we should note that there are spatial and temporal dimensions to the process of development, which will be elaborated as we move along. But first, what is meant here by actuality and potentiality, of development as transforming what is potential to something actual? [See also “The Concept of Potentiality: On Agamben“]. Actuality, Hegel insists throughout the text, is the domain of Spirit: this is why the words “act,” “activity,” “actuality,” and “actualization” hew close to each other. Potentiality, on the other hand, is not given much elaboration in the Philosophy of History, but we can say that potentiality is treated as fundamentally that which is opposed to actuality. This, as we know, is an Aristotelian inheritance, in which what is potential [dunamis] is something that is not-yet actual, but that which over time and through the principle of development has the power to actualize [energia]. Potentiality thus contains within it a kind of directional force, whose aim or yearning is to manifest itself in actuality: as when Hegel describes matter as having a “central point outside itself” to which it moves towards to actualize its implicit substance, a kind of external gravitational pull that brings out potentiality, and in so doing, makes the concept of a thing actual [e.g., a bud to a rose] (20). For Hegel, Reason is that which is capable of actualizing itself (he says that its center, unlike that of natural objects, is entirely within itself], which means that Reason is a purposive activity that unfolds its inner potentiality into explicit actuality, through its own determination, whose form is Spirit. This theme, I think is important to keep in mind because Marx will overturn Hegel and relocate this power of actualizability from Spirit (or subjective thought more generally) to the material activity of man, i.e., human labor-power. What unites Hegel and Marx is a certain prioritization of actuality over and against potentiality, since potentiality is understood as the substrate of the actual word. For both, it is the principle of development which endows a being the causal power of realizing into actuality what is merely potential.
The developmental dynamic between potentiality and actuality hence has something to do with a vital force behind which a world is unfolded into being. But, for Hegel, there are essentially two worlds of which he speaks. There is the world of nature and there is the world of Spirit. With respect to each, development takes different forms. In the world of nature, development is merely quantitative: change in nature happens cyclically, because the development of matter and organisms in nature is one that is a “peaceful process of growth.” Development in nature is peaceful because nothing intrudes from its maturity, for the simple reason that nature needs only to obey its own laws of causality. Hegel writes, “changes in the world of nature – infinitely varied as these might be – reflect nothing more than an eternally repeated cycle. In nature there is nothing new under the sun…[and hence] carries with it a certain boredom” (57). A bud becomes a flower, not a cow, for instance, because the development of organic forms proceed from an “immutable inner principle – a simple essence, a simple germ …[whose] organic entity produces itself, making itself into what it implicitly is” (58). In short, because the development of organic forms in nature merely realizes what it is already implicitly, nature, under Hegel’s schema, strictly speaking, has no history.
Development in the world of Spirit is of an entirely different consequence. Spirit does not share this peaceful process of organic growth as found in the world of nature, and this is also why the “theater” of world spirit is located in world history, and why its historical drama is one of violence. It is not peaceful because the developmental path which Spirit takes is one that is interrupted and mediated by a consciousness, a will – in other words Reason itself. The principle of development in the world of spirit contains within itself a fundamental hindrance, to which consciousness must overcome in order to move from potentiality to actuality, that is, to actualize its concept in development, and in so doing move into a higher form. “Development for Spirit,” Hegel writes, is a “hard and endless struggle against itself” (59). Why is Spirit characterized as a being that is divided against itself? Although Spirit is self-determining and self-causing, it is not a divine intuition which has the unconditioned power to posit itself out of itself. In other words, the truth of Spirit is not immediately self-evident, it is not self-actual, but must make itself go through the process of development from potentiality to actuality over space and time in order to realize its concept that was already entirely within itself, although only implicitly. As Hegel writes: “Spirit hides this concept [of itself] from itself – and it is even proud and filled with joy in this self-estrangement” (6).
The development of Spirit can therefore be grasped as a movement that takes various shapes in its realization of its self-concept. The movement of Spirit takes the form a particular activity, whose products assume various conceptual shapes. This activity is the work of the negative, of negation (Aufgehoben); its shape, borrowing a figure from the Phenomenology of Spirit, is “the circle that presupposes its end as its goal and has its end for its beginning, and which is actual only through this accomplishment and its end” (§18). The development of Spirit involves this circular self-estrangement of itself: Spirit must externalize itself in objective form (actuality) in order to return to itself, that is in order to recognize, reflect, and gain a self-consciousness of itself as Reason. This motif can perhaps be captured in the idea of Spirit becoming-other than itself in order to return to itself anew. What informs this circular-like path of becoming-other of Spirit is the activity of sublation, which is understood here simultaneously in the following three registers: to cancel, to preserve, and to transcend or lift up into a higher form. On p. 67 of Philosophy of History, Hegel writes: “the dialectical nature of the concept [of development] in general is that it is self-determining – it posits determinations in itself, then negates them, and thereby gains in this negation (Aufheben), an affirmative, richer, and more concrete determination.”
In this movement from negation, preservation, and sublation into a higher state, the moment I am interested in is that moment in which something is left behind in the lifting up of what is preserved in order to realize a higher state or more perfect form. Focusing on this moment in the Hegelian development, we see that a selective preservation is effected, but one that, in preserving, also dissolves, annuls, and excludes that which is seen as no longer needed, under the temporal priority toward actuality. Let us consider one of Hegel’s own examples, that of a seed to a tree. It is interesting to note that although Hegel is insistent on distinguishing Spirit from nature, he often relies on analogies of nature to elaborate the essential form of Spirit. “World history,” as he says, is “the exhibition of Spirit, the working out of the explicit knowledge of what it is potentially. Just as the germ of the plant carries within itself the entire nature of the tree, even the taste and shape of its fruit, so the first traces of Spirit virtually contain all history” (21). The development of a tree — from germ, seed, to a full tree – contains in every stage of its development, the concept of itself as “tree” waiting to be actualized. This is to say that the immature or underdeveloped stage is not merely that which is not-yet, but that which at the same time has its own opposite or contradiction within itself, i.e. its actual concept as “tree,” as the source of its force and drive. It is precisely this internal contradiction that is overcome, negated, and sublated (transformed into a higher, more perfect or actual form), which is understood as a necessary step in realizing the activity of the concept. But the question we should ask is, What happens to the shell of the seed, which, at a certain point of the tree’s development, was a necessary barrier to protect the kernel, so to secure the very potentiality of the germ to grow in the kernel’s gradual becoming-other of itself as a tree? Something is always lost at the expense of Spirit’s activity, of Spirit’s development of itself as a self-actuality, and this preservation-through-exclusion is given a rational form and necessity in Hegel’s philosophy. The social implications of this characterization of Reason’s form, nature, and force remains an important question. Like the concept of the tree that guides and disciplines the growth of the seed, Hegel describes world history as “the process by which the uncontrolled natural will is disciplined in the direction of the universal, the direction of subjective freedom” (93).
Here, the guiding principle and concept of Spirit’s development is freedom, which becomes gradually objectified, realized, and given concrete form as the Ideal State. For Hegel, the State is the realization of Spirit in objective form; it is conceived as the embodiment of Ethical Life as Right and Law. This is why the precise object of world history is the State. Because the State is that which gives Spirit’s concept of freedom its objectivity and earthly form, Hegel suggests an individual’s humanity can only be fully experienced through the State. But the State, too, needs to be developed. A unity must be made between the private interests of its citizens and the universal goal of the State, so that “each finds its fulfillment and realization in the other” (27). According to Hegel, there are civilizations who never become a genuine state, who fail to embody the Ideal of Spirit, but merely become particular shapes of world spirit’s violent path of finding itself.
Final remark by way of an introduction of the aporia of time in Hegel’s principle of development in world history. On p. 75, Hegel writes: “World history in general is  the unfolding of Spirit in time, as nature is the unfolding of the Idea in space.” We have already seen that Spirit is opposed to nature in terms of its development and form of causality. Hegel is suggesting here that Spirit and Nature each belong to a domain of appropriate to its own, Spirit–that of time, Nature–that of space. The unfolding of Spirit essentially takes place in time, and in its unfolding of itself through the principle of development, Spirit begins to assume various shapes, and by extension, take on a certain spatial form (the most concrete instantiation being the realization of Spirit as State, which implies a notion of spatial territoriality). What does it mean, however, to link Spirit essentially with time? To be sure, all history takes place in time, but not all that happens in time can be said to be history or of world-historical significance. Hegel will insist that Spirit is outside of time, that it is by definition atemporal, unconditioned by time, because its proper domain is the eternal. Yet, Spirit requires time insofar as it inhabits it in order to develop and realize its principle and self-consciousness of itself as freedom. In this sense, time provides the occasion for Spirit’s self-exhibition of itself, as it were. But insofar as time imbues Spirit with a determinate form, with a concrete actuality, temporality also contains the power of negation that interminably threatens to perish it. As he explains it in his Philosophy of Nature, time is “that being which, inasmuch as it is, is not, and inasmuch as it is not, is” (§258). Time, in other words, contains the power of negativity within itself: one can never experience time in itself because it is always “coming-to-be and passing away,” which therefore confounds any desire for immediacy, presence, or self-same actuality. With this in mind, how does one understand Hegel when he says, on p. 82, “Nothing in the past is lost to philosophy: the Idea is ever present, Spirit is immortal [outside time], i.e., Spirit is not the past, nor the non-existent future, but is an essential now”? Why this prioritization of the “now” in the philosophical study of world history? How exactly do we understand this “now” that is Spirit when Spirit itself possess the power of negativity, a power not unlike that of time? What do we make of this “now,” when the “now,” strictly speaking, is in effect a figure of the impossible.
Image: Detail from Do-ho Suh, Floor, 1997-2005.